The battle for democracy starts here

We must defend democracy against an elite furious with the referendum result.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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‘We can stop this madness through a vote in parliament’, tweeted Labour MP David Lammy. ‘I wouldn’t rule anything out’, former PM Tony Blair told the BBC. ‘We want a second referendum’, said 41,118 people from Vatican City, population 800, in a petition that is now being investigated for fraud… It’s only been a few days since the British public voted to Leave the EU, and this great, democratic gain, this rejection of the Europe-wide political establishment, is already under attack.

If there was ever any doubt that the pro-Remain sentiment was driven not by a devotion to the European project, but a revulsion at the British public, then the fallout from last Thursday’s vote should have put it to bed. Lammy, calling for MPs to block Brexit or else call a second referendum, said ‘we cannot usher in rule by plebiscite which unleashes the “wisdom” of resentment and prejudice’. He should at least get credit for his candour; he’s saying what everyone else in Whitehall is thinking.

Over the weekend, there has been a fevered search for loopholes, get-out clauses and Plan Bs. Tory Europhile Lord Heseltine has called for a cross-party group of MPs to ‘articulate the case for Britain rethinking the result of the referendum’. The Liberal Democrats – that’s Liberal Democrats – are saying they’ll fight a General Election on reversing the decision of the referendum. And Doughty Street QC Geoffrey Robertson has outlined how MPs might block any Brexit legislation. ‘Democracy in Britain doesn’t mean… the tyranny of the mob’, he said.

So what are their reasons for overruling the will of the people? What intellectual contortions are they performing, seeing as they still can’t quite summon the courage to say ‘stupid plebs’? They say we were misled, we were hoodwinked. Now that prominent Vote Leavers have backtracked on pledges to cut immigration and shower the NHS in EU-earmarked money, the argument is, as Lammy has put it, that the result no longer counts: ‘Let us not destroy our economy on the basis of lies and the hubris of Boris Johnson.’

This is risible, and it completely misunderstands the referendum result. Those who voted to Leave didn’t elect Vote Leave. A Lord Ashcroft poll has found that people’s main motivation for voting Leave was ‘the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK’ – immigration came second and NHS funding didn’t even make the top three. Aside from the handful of regretful Leavers, who have been ferried from media appearance to media appearance over the past 48 hours, the majority voted Leave in the name of popular sovereignty – precisely the principle that so turns the stomachs of the elite.

The idea that the public are liable to be misled or exploited by colourful demagogues is the oldest anti-democratic argument in the book. When the Chartists, those great, radical democrats, were agitating for the working-class to receive the vote in the 19th century, the response from the elite was almost identical. ‘[The] working classes do not speak with their own voice’, read an editorial in the Morning Chronicle in March 1839. The Chartists, it said, were merely exploiting gruff folk’s ‘astonishing ignorance and credulity’. How little seems to have changed.

Those who say a second referendum would be no big deal – a democratic way to confirm, or deny, the result – are either lying, historically illiterate, or both. The history of EU referenda is a grubby one. When, in 2005, France and the Netherlands rejected the new EU constitution at the ballot box, they were ignored. When, in 2008, the Irish voted against the Lisbon Treaty, they were made to vote again, and were put under extreme moral and economic pressure to change their minds. There is nothing democratic about a do-over; it’s an opportunity to exploit a moment of political exhaustion and to blackmail the public into making the ‘right’ decision.

The Brexit backlash has revealed just how fragile democracy is today. That even the overwhelming will of the people – expressed at the ballot box – can be downplayed, undermined and avoided, shows how much is left to fight for. But the elite has done us a favour. It has made brutally clear that the enemies of democracy are not only to be found in Brussels meeting rooms, but in every corridor of power. It has confirmed that Brussels was primarily a manifestation of a problem here at home: the new aloofness of the elites and their fear and contempt for the demos. Yet while the referendum has clarified the crisis of democracy, it hasn’t solved it.

The official Leave campaign’s dithering over initiating Article 50 will only allow elite schemers more opportunities to scupper the public will. We must remain vigilant. The referendum was a historic democratic moment, a revolt of the ignored and the left behind. We must push that spirit further, insist that the Leave vote is acted upon and then set about challenging every anti-democratic argument, individual and institution that seeks to temper the masses’ unleashed political passions.

This is what spiked intends to do in the coming weeks. To deepen the case for a better, more engaged, democratic politics. The battle for democracy starts here.

Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

At 7pm on Wednesday 29 June, spiked and the Institute of Ideas are holding a public meeting at the Royal National Hotel in central London entitled ‘Brexit: the battle for democracy starts here’. Frank Furedi will give a lecture, Claire Fox will respond and Tom Slater will introduce and chair. Get your tickets here.

Picture by: Zoi Koraki, published under a creative commons license.

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